2017 Best MBAs: Austin Webb, Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)

Austin Webb

Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University

Age: 28

Describe yourself in 15 words or less: Former investment banker turned AgTech entrepreneur looking to change the world for the better.

Hometown: Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Fun fact about yourself: The founder of Wofford College, Benjamin Wofford, is my four greats uncle, but I did not know that until after enrolling. Both my undergraduate and graduate school’s mascot is a terrier.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Wofford College, Bachelor of Arts in Finance (Major: Finance, Minor: Economics)

Where did you work before enrolling in business school?

  • FBR Capital Markets, Investment Banking Associate
  • Lockheed Martin, Financial Analyst, Finance Leadership Development Program

Where did you intern during the summer of 2016? RoBotany Ltd., CEO and Co-founder (Pittsburgh, PA)

Where will you be working after graduation? RoBotany Ltd., CEO and Co-founder (Pittsburgh, PA)

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • CEO and Co-founder of RoBotany Ltd.
  • President of the Graduate Entrepreneurship Club
  • Board Member of DiscoverCMU
  • Organizer of the first campus-wide robotics competition at CMU
  • Collaborator with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (in tandem with RoBotany)
  • Speaker at the Annual Pittsburgh Alumni Reception regarding Innovation at the Tepper School
  • George W. McCandless Memorial Scholar
  • Jerome Holleran Scholar
  • Wildcat Venture Partners Scholar

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am most proud of being CEO and Co-founder of RoBotany Ltd., an indoor vertical farming company that is using automated robotics and software analytics to transform modern agriculture. Our patent pending technology is a full stack solution whereby our robotic hardware allows for significantly improved labor efficiency, annual yields that can reach 180 times per 2D square foot compared to traditional ag (over 1,000 times when including outdoor crop loss), and newfound sustainability – all through automation. Simultaneously, our software system not only controls the robotic hardware and monitors every aspect of our controlled environment 24/7, 365 days a year, but also uses machine learning and data science to optimize plant growth for nutrients and taste, instead of the ability to handle RoundUp and other pesticides. At the end of the day, for the consumer, this means hyper-fresh, hyper-local produce that can be grown inside any city limits all year round. It means beyond organic produce grown in a pure, unadulterated environment that is herbicide and pesticide-free – always. And it means produce grown with 95 percent less water versus traditional ag, no top soil degradation, and no runoff pollution – all in a world with a fast growing population and the threat of losing potable water and arable top soil across the globe. I am extremely proud of building RoBotany for a few reasons. First, building a company in an effort to make the world better is why I came to the Tepper School, so I am extremely grateful to be doing just that, and I’m fortunate to be doing so while still attending the Tepper School full-time. Second, being an entrepreneur is difficult in many ways, but it is totally worth it as there is nothing more invigorating than trying to make a positive impact on the world through my direct actions. It is an amazing feeling to build something from scratch and to achieve important milestones on the path towards making the vision a reality. Finally, I am proud of how quickly we are growing. In less than a year, we have validated our concept, built our initial miniature prototype farm, raised over half a million dollars, launched our produce brand, Pure Sky Farms, in Whole Foods, and have moved into a 40,000 square foot former steel mill that will be converted into our full-scale indoor farm later this year. All of this being said, there is a long way to go with much more work to come, so I imagine we will continue to lean on the robust support from the Tepper School and Carnegie Mellon University going forward.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of building RoBotany while still attending the Tepper School’s full-time MBA program. It has been extremely hard work, but I have benefited greatly from being able to do so.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? My favorite professor is the legendary Dave Mawhinney. Dave has successfully built and sold multiple companies, of which his last was sold to LinkedIn. This means two things: First, it means that he is a subject matter expert and everything he teaches in his class is based on real-world success. Second, it means that he could be retired if he wanted to be. Instead, Dave works his absolute hardest each and every day to teach us and make us better. I am very grateful for what he taught me in class, as well as his continued mentorship outside the classroom.

What was your favorite MBA Course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? One of my favorite courses at the Tepper School was Entrepreneurship for High Growth Companies (now called Lean Entrepreneurship). The entire class was an experiential learning opportunity, and it solidified many of the entrepreneurship principles that I had learned over the preceding year. I was also able to use RoBotany as the class project, which meant growth and progress with the help of my classmates in parallel with learning.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose the Tepper School because I wanted to start a high growth company that solved a big, important problem, and I knew that the Tepper School and Carnegie Mellon was the perfect place to do so. The entrepreneurship ecosystem at the Tepper School is the best in the world. A big reason for that is how connected the Tepper School and the other top-ranked Carnegie Mellon schools and programs are. To start successful companies, engineers need business experts as co-founders and vice versa. And these co-founders need money, contacts, education, and platforms on which to take off. The Tepper School and Carnegie Mellon provide all of that, all in one campus. For example, my startup, RoBotany Ltd., went through Carnegie Mellon’s startup incubator and participated in multiple grant opportunities. Furthermore, I was able to leverage the classroom by having RoBotany serve as the class project, which allowed for learning, free labor from my gifted classmates, and company growth/progress simultaneously. We also went across campus and took advantage of Carnegie Mellon’s top-ranked MSIT eBusiness Practicum course, where we had seven computer science students assist our team in the design and implementation of our software back-end. Finally, we tapped into the Tepper School network to assist in our venture capital fundraising of over $600K, which consists of money from venture capital firms founded by Tepper School alums.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? I thoroughly enjoyed making long-lasting relationships and significantly expanding my business network across so many different industries, functions, and geographies; the Tepper School is full of so many amazing people with fascinating stories. I also enjoyed being able to immerse myself in the Tepper School and Carnegie Mellon’s entrepreneurial resources, networks and support. When you come to the Tepper School, you aren’t in a silo that is disconnected from the rest of the campus. Instead, you have the opportunity to tap into all of Carnegie Mellon’s top-ranked programs from computer science and robotics, to drama and the fine arts.

What was the most surprising thing about business school for you? The most surprising thing about the Tepper School is the amount of course work in the first year; it is a lot more than most top-ranked schools.

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? The best piece of advice I can provide is this: Know what resources and opportunities you want to take advantage of before enrolling, or at least within the first few weeks after the program starts, and be hyper-focused on immersing yourself in those resources and opportunities throughout school. This is the best way to transform yourself while in school, and it provides a constant opportunity for experiential learning.

What is the biggest myth about your school? The biggest myth about business school, in general, is that you can’t or shouldn’t get your MBA if you’re looking to get into entrepreneurship or start your own company. If you go to a school like the Tepper School, which has a tremendous entrepreneurial ecosystem full of top notch resources, grant money, and faculty, it can serve as an all-important jump start. The biggest myth about Tepper is that students are so quantitative they struggle to be as personable and polished as students from schools with a more qualitative-based curriculum. This is not true. The only difference is a data driven approach.

What was your biggest regret in business school? My biggest regret was feeling spread too thin in trying to build RoBotany while also going to class full time. I don’t regret my decision for a minute, but I technically could have taken more classes otherwise.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I most admire Danny Seim, who is one of my co-founders at RoBotany. He is extremely passionate and has a very hard work ethic, which is a big reason why I asked him to join the RoBotany team.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when… I got the entrepreneurial fever while in investment banking after meeting numerous entrepreneurs who had built their companies from scratch, including Morgan O’Brien of Nextel, and I knew investment banking wasn’t going to get me there.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be… grinding away in investment banking and not answering my calling.”

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the MBA experience? I would create an entrepreneurial MBA curriculum and schedule that is modularized for partial customization.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My long-term goal is to achieve RoBotany’s vision and mission and to make a significant, positive impact on the world by changing it for the better.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? My parents, Dave Mawhinney, Mike Gabaly, Peter Clyne, Professors Swicegood, Merriman, and Green, my brother, and my loving fiancée. All of these individuals have mentored and supported me throughout my different endeavors and life. They have helped me become who I am today.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? Smart, dedicated, and full of potential for wild success.

“If there is one person in our class who will make it big, I would bet it will be you.”

– A Tepper School classmate. It was such an honor to hear them say this, although I’m not sure it’s altogether true. We have a ton of extremely gifted classmates.

Favorite book: Anything non-fiction

Favorite movie or television show:

Movies: Donnie Darko, Interstellar, The Sandlot
TV Shows: Archer, Strike Back, Silicon Valley

Favorite musical performer: The Black Keys

Favorite vacation spot: Sunset Beach, North Carolina

Hobbies? Eating great food and drinking Tuscan wine.

What made Austin such an invaluable addition to the class of 2017?

“We have been blessed at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business to attract excellent entrepreneurs such as Austin, mainly because of the university’s reputation for technology and interdisciplinary collaboration. Upon arriving at the Tepper School, Austin immediately established himself as a leader at Carnegie Mellon and the Tepper School by becoming the President of the University-wide Graduate Entrepreneurs Club. But what impressed me the most about Austin is that during his first year when he entered our annual McGinnis Venture Competition with his startup RoBotany – an indoor vertical farming company powered by robots – and did not pass through to the second round because the idea was early and still forming, but instead of quitting or pivoting, he doubled down in his efforts and built a valuable growing company. Less than one year later, he has raised more than $600K, built the first operating prototype, has begun selling greens to Whole Foods in Pittsburgh under the brand “Pure Sky Farms,” and is in the process of launching RoBotany’s second prototype farm in a 40,000 square foot abandoned steel mill in Pittsburgh’s South Side – all while still an MBA student! Powered by his passion to make a significant, positive impact on the world, the sky truly is the limit for Austin and RoBotany’s “Pure Sky Farms” brand!”

Dave Mawhinney
Director, Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship
Executive Director, Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship
Associate Teaching Professor, Tepper School of Business

DON’T MISS: THE COMPLETE HONOR ROLL: BEST & BRIGHTEST MBAS OF 2017